Almost every National Park is extraordinary. National Monuments are more of a gamble. Some are extraordinary, but others don’t deliver the same kind of excitement. Ironwood Forest falls into that second category. Visiting it requires a long, bumpy drive on a dusty dirt road, and once you get there, there isn’t a lot to see.
I’ve already revealed that I wasn’t terribly thrilled with my spur-of-the-moment decision to check out Ironwood Forest National Monument. It’s worth noting that the BLM-managed monument serves an important purpose: there are several rare species of flora and fauna protected here. And the entire area is a very pretty desert landscape. So if you love Ironwood Forest, please don’t send me hate mail. All I’m saying is, for the casual visitor, it might not be worth the drive into this out-of-the-way corner of the Sonoran Desert.
I drove here via Silver Bell Road, which appears to be the main road into the monument. There is a sign to welcome you, but this is the only indication that you’ve arrived anywhere. Before you get here, Silver Bell Road turns to dirt — though thankfully, it’s a reasonably smooth ride (except for that sneaky, every-so-often rocky bump that appears out of nowhere and crunches your suspension).
I didn’t find any sign of any designated hiking trails in the area. There are a couple of turnouts that provide potential camping or picnicking areas — just don’t expect any amenities of any kind. I don’t even remember seeing an outhouse. You will, however, find a beautiful view of mountain ranges such as Ragged Top, located south of Silver Bell Road.
In the middle of the monument, Silver Bell Road reaches a T intersection. I decided to turn right, which put me on Sasco Road, headed for Interstate 10. If all went well, I’d end up near Picacho Peak State Park, where I hoped to hike.
Every inch of Sasco Road looks exactly like what you see above. It’s less exciting than Silver Bell Road was, and Silver Bell Road wasn’t all that exciting. At least the surface was mostly smooth, allowing me to go faster than that recommended 15 miles per hour.
Along the way, I spotted something interesting at the side of the road. An old stone building stands in ruins. It’s just a short walk from the road…
… into the old building, which looks sort-of bombed out. The mountain in the distance, by the way, is Picacho Peak. I was only a few miles away from it.
Graffiti on the wall provides evidence of the building’s history. I’m guessing it’s been an abandoned shell since at least 1973, perhaps much longer.
Back on the road, I was cruising along, somewhat disappointed that I had invested so much time in Ironwood Forest, but happy that I was quickly approaching Interstate 10. That is…
… until I encountered the Santa Cruz River. Yes, that’s the river, cutting directly across the road. As you’ll see in the Drivelapse video, it was flowing quite fast, and quite deep. There was no way to cross it, and no way around it. My only choice was to backtrack on the same roads, all the way back into the monument, then out on Trico-Marana Road, which crosses the river on an actual bridge, approximately ten miles from this point. The required circuitous route would take much more than ten miles. At least I knew where all the bumps were, so I could avoid most of them.
The Bottom Line
I didn’t know what to expect, when I decided to drive out to Ironwood Forest National Monument — and that was my mistake. Do your research ahead of time, and decide whether it’s worth the detour from civilization. I believe, for most casual visitors, the monument does not offer enough to justify the trip.
Ironwood Forest National Monument is located northwest of Tucson, Arizona, and west of Interstate 10. You can access it via exits 236 (Trico-Marana Road) and 226 (Sasco Road). Be aware, however, that Sasco Road is sometimes impassable at the Santa Cruz River. When the water is low, you may be able to ford the river. When it’s high, do not attempt it.
I visited Ironwood Forest National Monument after visiting the west section of Saguaro National Park. Several local roads will take you from the park to Silver Bell Road, which runs through the monument.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive through Saguaro National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument: